Several years ago I spent a few months reading widely on hermeneutics, the concept of what it means to read and understand scripture. It wasn’t until I was burned out on hermeneutics that I heard about William Webb’s book Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis. I did read his more introductory book on Corporal Punishment and Parenting that was well worth reading about four years ago.
I finally picked up Slaves, Women, & Homosexuals as part of my reading about how different people are approaching homosexuality in the church. I have been roughly alternating books on different positions up until this point, I think the two books that are the best I have read on each side is People to be Loved by Preston Sprinkle and Changing Our Mind by David Gushee, although I think both are far from perfect and neither will change many minds.
Slaves, Women, & Homosexuals is more about culture and hermeneutics than the particular issues of homosexuality and women in the church. The basic project is for Webb to chart out 18 points to evaluate how the church should understand scripture and theology in regard to a cultural issue. He takes these three areas to give illustration to the idea.
First, he assumes that most Christians now agree that slavery is sinful. He charts out this change briefly (Mark Noll’s The Civil War as Theological Crisis does this is greater detail.) But the general assumption is that most readers agree with him on this and he is using slavery as a ‘neutral’ example. Then the other two examples are Women (pro) and Homosexuality (against). For women, Webb is trying to show why egalitarian (men and women are equal in position and calling within the church) or ‘ultra soft patriarchy’ (there is difference in calling, but women and men have equal worth before God) is how we should read scripture now because the patriarchy of scripture was culturally bound. And then he uses homosexuality as his negative example because he believes that celibacy is the only option for Gay Christians and that the proscriptions against homosexuality are transcultural.
Slaves, Women, & Homosexuals is not about women in ministry or homosexuality as much as it is about hermeneutics and culture with illustrations of these easy to agree on issues (being a bit tongue in cheek here.)
There are 18 steps to evaluating how culturally bound or transcultural a scriptural practice or current theological position is. There is no way that I can talk about these in detail without a 4000 word post, which no one would read. The short version is that Webb is giving criteria on how to look at and analyze scripture in regard to it understanding of a cultural practice. This quote at the end of the book is a good summary:
Cultural assessment is an essential component if we are to adequately account for the less-than-ultimate ethic of Scripture. Yet, as emphasized in this work, the issue is one of perspective. It is not as some critics have said, that Scripture is sexist or repressive regarding slaves and women. That is to talk about Scripture in a vacuum, devoid of its original social context or cultural backdrop. Such is an anachronistic reading of the text! Relative to when and where the words of Scripture were first read, they spoke redemptively to their given communities.
There are two pretty big caveats to Webb’s project that I think he would agree with, but he did not spend much time talking about. The first, which I think is essential, is that scripture needs to be interpreted corporately. We can read our bibles by ourselves, but we need to interpret it corporately. One of the problems with the individualism of modern Evangelical culture is that we think we can be Christians apart from the church. The church is essential to how we live as Christians, how we understand and put scripture into practice and how we communicate the gospel.
Part of what Webb is pointing out in Slaves, Women, & Homosexuals is that we cannot read scripture apart outside of the culture we are in. What makes cross-cultural church communities so important is that we need to have other Christians from outside of our direct culture in our church community so that our cultural blind-spots are more easily identified and so that we are less likely to confuse our Christianity and our culture.
If we have a cross-cultural community in place to read and interpret scripture (with all the caveats that scripture can only really be interpreted properly with the help of the Holy Spirit) then the second point that this book brings up for me is that we have to actually trust the people that are helping us to interpret well. There are so many points in this book where I could see things going off the rails. If scriptural interpretation were simple and all transcultural, then we would not have the gazillion denominations and understandings of Christianity. Paul directions about having mature believers as elders makes a lot of sense if you assume that the church community as a whole is together interpreting scripture, with the greater vote going to those that are elders.
The principles here, although I am not sure I agree with the final results in the two cases, I do think are helpful. It is not that most on one side or another of acceptance of covenanted gay marriage within the church has rejected theological analysis. But I think that many on both sides have done far less work than is really necessary to come to their positions.
Slaves, Women, & Homosexuals is not the most scintillating book I have read. The detail and repetitive nature of slightly different looks at similar question can be dull at times. For most people I would recommend his more poplar level book Corporal Punishment in the Bible: A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic for Troubling Texts by William Webb. That book gives more than enough of the idea behind his Redemptive Movement hermeneutic to understand the idea. If you read it and are interested in further exploration then pick up Slaves, Women and Homosexuals.